Thursday is for Theological Terminology:
The Study of Specialized Words relating to Theology

June 1, 2011

by Ron F. Hale, Minister of Missions, West Jackson Baptist Church, Jackson, TN

Total Depravity or Total Inability

Bernd Brandes was a person with a passion for pain.

This bizarre mania caused him to respond to an internet ad placed by another German man by the name of Armin Meiwes.  This spine-chilling internet ad declared that Meiwes was seeking “a young, well built man who wants to be eaten.”

Brandes responded and became the menu of Meiwes. This modern day cannibal was later sentenced to serve eight years and six months in prison. How would you like being the sleepy-eyed cell mate of Meiwes?

This story reveals the ever-present wickedness of mankind, that we are not deprived but depraved sinners. Forever and a day each of us will always fall short of the glory of God due to this sin nature.

Under the statement on Man, the following sentences taken from the Baptist Faith and Message, 2000 enlighten us on our depravity:

By his free choice man sinned against God and brought sin into the human race. Through the temptation of Satan man transgressed the command of God, and fell from his original innocence whereby his posterity inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin. Therefore, as soon as they are capable of moral action, they become transgressors and are under condemnation.

Throughout God’s Word, we see man’s devious and depraved nature has an explicit bias toward evil resulting in our certainty to sin; therefore, it cannot be escaped since our human nature has been corrupted by sin.

The Apostle Paul writes about our sin nature in Romans 7:18-19 (NASB).

For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want.

Inquiring theological minds may ask whether this depravity is partial, total, or radical?  Most Southern Baptists will say that our depravity is “total,” but it does not mean total inability or radical depravity, which means the sinner is so spiritually bankrupt that he can do nothing in responding to God.

In seeking to help us avoid extreme Calvinism’s view of total inability, Dr. Norman Geisler says,

Extreme Calvinists believe that a totally depraved person is spiritually dead.  By “spiritual death” they mean the elimination of all human ability to understand or respond to God, not just a separation from God.  Further, the effects of sin are intensive (destroying the ability to receive salvation), not just extensive (corrupting the ability to receive salvation).  While many extreme Calvinists would deny the implications, the following chart illustrates the differences:

Moderate Calvinist View Extreme Calvinist View
Corruption of Good Destruction of Good
Effects of Sin Are Extensive Effects of Sin Are Intensive
Born With Propensity to Sin Born With Necessity to Sin
Human Will Is Diminished Human Will Is Destroyed

Norman Geisler, Chosen But Free, 2d ed. (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2001), 57-58.

While many Non-Calvinists would join with a Moderate Calvinist like Dr. Geisler in teaching “total depravity,” they would not misinterpret this doctrine by teaching total inability or extreme depravity.

James Montgomery Boice and Philip Ryken advocate the extreme Calvinist view as they write:

In this sad and pervasively sinful state we have no inclination to seek God, and therefore cannot seek him or even respond to the gospel when it is presented to us.  In our unregenerate state, we do not have free will so far as “believing on” or “receiving” Jesus Christ as Savior is concerned.  In fact, such is our slavery to sin that we cannot understand our need of Christ until God first gives us spiritual understanding.  Even faith must come as a gift, because prior to the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit our depravity renders us impotent to cooperate with God’s saving grace.

James Montgomery Boice and Phillip G. Ryken, The Doctrines of Grace (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2002), 30).

Most Southern Baptist pastors and lay teachers reject the teaching of Total Inability. In most pulpits as in most classrooms it is taught and preached that man is totally depraved, but that God, in His sovereign will, endowed each of us with the moral ability to hear the gospel and freely respond in faith, or reject the love and grace of God.

While God brings conviction of sin through the Holy Spirit, He also shows us our need to turn from our sins (repentance) and turn to (believe) the Lord Jesus Christ.  As the Holy Scriptures implore us to repent, turn, receive, believe, trust, and come, we surrender to God in repentance and faith and are born again by the regenerating power of God, thus we are saved by the glorious grace of God!

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Chris Roberts

A few comments.

1. The Bible calls people to holy behavior – doing what God says to do and not doing what God says not to do. There are numerous calls to “turn away from evil and do good.” This includes walking with Christ, sharing the gospel, helping the needy, etc, as well as not lying, not committing adultery, etc. We are to love what is good and hate what is evil.

2. The Bible notes the depths of man’s sin and man’s inability to obey or to do good or to desire good, that natural man instead loves evil. The single best passage for this is Romans 3:9-18 (and all the OT texts it draws from), but it is not isolated – Ephesians 2:1-3, Hebrews 11:6, Luke 6:43 and Mark 10:18 (no one is good but God, and no bad tree bears good fruit), Romans 14:23 (if it is not done in faith, it is sin; the unbeliever does not act in faith). Even Romans 7 points to this – Paul speaks of nothing good dwelling in his flesh, his flesh leading him only into sin with no good in the flesh. The good he desires, he desires now as a Christian who bears the Spirit of God, but even as a Christian he continues to desire the flesh (also Galatians 5:16-18). John 3:6, flesh can only give birth to flesh; that, along with John 6:63, only the Spirit can give life while the flesh is of no help to give life; Romans 8:5, those living in the flesh have their minds set on flesh; Romans 8:9, you are in the flesh unless the Spirit of Christ is in you – etc, etc. So our flesh is not simply inclined to sin, everything coming from flesh is sin, and the only remedy is for God’s Spirit to enter us – and yet, no one desires God, no one seeks for him, no one does good, and those in the flesh have their minds fixed on the flesh and will never turn to the things of the Spirit.

3. The Bible never says that God does a work in all humanity to slightly undo the effects of total depravity. There is no prevenient grace that enables all people to respond to the gospel. Because of our sin, we are dead in sin and God has not half resurrected humanity to enable humanity to respond to the gospel.

4. The Bible teaches that the Spirit goes where he will, and that which is born of the Spirit is Spirit, and God will remove hearts of stone and give the Spirit along with hearts of flesh (Ezekiel 11:19, 36:26; flesh used in a different sense than in the NT) that beat for God and we will be led by the Spirit to walk in obedience (back to NT language, walk by the Spirit, not by the flesh). Unless God first does a work in the human heart, no human will be saved. Unless God changes us, we will not desire salvation for our love of sin is too great. And there is no indication that God changes all people but we see clear indication that God changes some.

Michael K.

Amen Chris!

Steve Lemke

Thanks for these thoughts, Chris. Let me ask you to consider these matters as points of conversation regarding your specific points:

(1) Isn’t it odd that God would sarcastically command everyone to live holy lives when He knows that they cannot do so without His help, and He is refusing to help them? What would that failure to act on the part of God reflect on His character?

(2) I’m not quite sure what purchase you think the Scriptures you mentioned in this section of your questions have. Anyone in the “Moderate Calvinistic” perspective suggested by Geisler and Hale would use these same Scriptures to affirm universal human depravity and the necessity of the grace of God and the conviction of the Holy Spirit for salvation. There’s no debate there. In fact, even Arminians would agree with that. So you’re going to have to work harder to prove what Geisler calls the “Extreme” Calvinistic perspective.

By the way, how do you interpret Romans 3:11 (that natural man doesn’t seek God) in the light of repeated statements in Scripture that not only indicate that people can seek God but that God commands us to seek Him (Deut. 4:29,;1 Chron. 16:11, 29:9; 2 Chron. 15:2, 12; 19:3, 20:3-4, 30:19, 31:21, 34:3; Ezra 6:21, 7:10, 8:22; Job 5:8; Ps. 9:10, 24:6, 34:10, 40:16, 69:6, 69:32, 105:4, 119:2; Prov. 7:15, 8:17; Isa. 51:1, 55:6; Jer. 29:13; Hos. 10:12; Amos 5:4, 6, 14; Zeph. 2:3; Zech. 8:22; Matt. 6:33, 7:7; Luke 11:9, 12:31)? Do you think that all these statements in the inspired text that we can and should seek God suggest that you might should qualify your interpretation of Romans 3:11?

(3) Since you claim that the Bible “never” supports the notion that the Holy Spirit works with lost people (prevenient grace), it only takes a single counterexample to invalidate your claim. I’ll just list John 15:26, 16:8, and 16:13. Note particularly that Jesus says the Holy Spirit will convict ““the world”” of “sin, righteousness, and judgment” (John 16:8). The Spirit does not work simply with the elect, but with the entire world! Indeed, “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” is generally understood to be precisely the rejection of the conviction of the Holy Spirit, and hence the only unforgiveable sin (Matt. 12:31).

(4) No debate that no one comes except God draws him through the conviction and convincing of the Holy Spirit. But God also gives humans the awesome responsibility to accept or reject His Spirit-proffered grace, or Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem makes no sense at all (Matt. 23:17, Luke 13:34).

Just some thoughts for you to consider . . .

Tim S.

I would not consider Norman Geisler, as much as I enjoy his writings as a whole, a ‘Calvinist’, not even a moderate one. He redefines Calvinism in his book, ‘Chosen but Free’. Similarly I think it needs to be clarified that 5 point Calvinism is not, ‘extreme’ Calvinism. It is Calvinism. Grace and Peace.

Steve Lemke

I agree that Geisler’s description of “Extreme” Calvinism is, well, a bit extreme. I think that “Strong” Calvinism or “High” Calvinism, as we described it often in Whosoever Will, is more precise nomenclature to distinguish it from those who affirm less stringent forms of Calvinim.

However, I don’t understand why you reject the notion that Geisler might be a moderate Calvinist, since he moderately agrees with Calvinists. I don’t mean to read something into your words that you don’t intend, but one could read your remarks to suggest that “moderate” Calvinists are not “real” Calvinists, i.e., it’s an “all or nothing” proposition. Is that what you intend to say?

Tim S.

Thanks for needed point of clarification. No, I certainly do not mean to intend that its all or nothing. I know several brothers in the faith who are ‘4 point’ Calvinists (which is what I take moderate Calvinism to mean). I just don’t think Norman Geisler is one, at least not in the historical sense. He redefines so much that his brand of ‘Calvinism’ looks considerably different from Classical Calvinism (even the 4 point kind). Grace and Peace.

Chris Roberts

Responding by the points.

1. Mankind was created with the ability to obey God’s commands. By our sin, we destroyed that ability. It is not unjust or sarcastic for God to command his creation to perform according to his design even if we have spoiled that design. We, not God, are responsible for our loss of ability to obey.

As for God’s help, God willingly helps all who ask for his aid – you say, “He is refusing to help them” – it’s not that people are asking for God’s help and God is refusing; no one is asking for help. No one seeks God. The implication of your argument is that God is somehow obligated to intervene on behalf of mankind, but then we would be dealing with something other than grace.

2. I know the Scriptures I mentioned are affirmed in the same way by Calvinists and many non-Calvinists. There are many Pelagians in the church today, but I don’t expect to find any at SBC Today. So it served as a point of contact but also as reinforcement for the biblical notion of Total Depravity. I also stressed those verses because while the biblical view of human depravity is frequently found in Scripture, how non-Calvinists deal with those verses is not found in Scripture. Calvinists go from total depravity to say that God then intervenes in the lives of the elect to regenerate and give a heart of faith and trust. Non-Calvinists go from total depravity to say that God imparts prevenient grace, enabling all humanity to obey his commands, despite total depravity. My point is that while total depravity is easily demonstrated, this particular notion of prevenient grace is not easy to demonstrate and is, in fact, absent from the Bible.

3. You mentioned numerous examples of God calling people to seek his face. The first part of my response is to say what I’ve already said: God is just to command what he created us to do, even if we are now (by our own action) unable to obey.

Second, we do see many instances in the Old Testament of people seeking and obeying God. Two comments on this – first, Calvinism does not eliminate choice. Everyone must choose. The unregenerate person will always choose sin. The believer is capable of choosing to follow God or choosing to follow sin. Thus the many exhortations to believers to cling to the Spirit and put off the flesh. It begins with choosing to cling to Christ by faith, to embrace him as Savior and Lord. But by God’s gracious work of regeneration, that choice for God will be made. (I know many non-Calvinists don’t like the notion of irresistible grace, but many Baptists essentially believe in irresistible grace when we proclaim that salvation cannot be lost – we say it is impossible for a true believer to ultimately turn away from God’s grace. Calvinists similarly say it is impossible for one who has been regenerated to reject grace.) So even for believers, choice is a necessary part of our walk with God. Second, Scripture interprets Scripture. Despite its length, many theological details are left out of the Old Testament but found in the New. And having the New, we can look back on the Old and see the hints that were given along the way. The Trinity is one good example. Salvation in Christ is another. The list could go on. And in that list is the reality that no one seeks God unless God draws him, and God loses none of those whom he draws. The Old Testament saints who sought the Lord were first sought by – and changed by – the Lord. Even if the OT doesn’t make this clear, the NT does.

You say, “Since you claim that the Bible “never” supports the notion that the Holy Spirit works with lost people (prevenient grace), it only takes a single counterexample to invalidate your claim.” One problem – I didn’t say that the Holy Spirit never works with lost people. What cannot be found in Scripture is the notion that the Spirit elevates all people out of total depravity just enough to enable them to respond to the gospel. As for the examples you cite, I’m not sure how they help your case. Jesus says things the Spirit will specifically do for “you” – that is, the disciples, the followers of Christ – and also says things the Spirit does for the world. But what he does for the world is not salvation nor elevation. Jesus goes on in verses 9-11 to explain what he meant in verse 8. The world stands convicted and warned that a righteous God is coming who will judge all who follow the ruler of this world rather than the Son of God. Conviction is not salvation. Bringing knowledge of sin is not the same as turning someone from their sin. Nothing in John 16:8 implies that God does a universal work of grace to enable all people to respond to the gospel. I know you are familiar with the Calvinist distinction between the universal and the effectual call. All are called to repent of sin, turn to Christ, and walk in righteousness. All are convicted of their sins. All are warned of the coming judgment. But all are not elevated out of total depravity.

4. Indeed, God gives us the responsibility to accept or reject. Due to sin, no one will accept. Thus the power and glory and grace present in the first two words of Ephesians 2:4.

Ron Hale

You say under point 2 in your first post:

“So our flesh is not simply inclined to sin, everything coming from flesh is sin, and the only remedy is for God’s Spirit to enter us – and yet, no one desires God, no one seeks for him, no one does good, and those in the flesh have their minds fixed on the flesh and will never turn to the things of the Spirit.”

God’s Word clearly shows that He enlightens sinners prior to conversion …”The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world” (John 1:9); “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32); “When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment: in regard to sin ..” (John 16:8).

I spent many sleepless nights seeking God as the Holy Spirit brought conviction on my heart. I read the Bible for six months. I attended church seeking answers (no better place). God’s Spirit was drawing me and breaking me. Once the Holy Spirit had me broken, He brought a mighty man of God into my life who spoke the Word. I was saved by grace through faith at the age of 23. God did it all … I just received it with the open hand of faith & repentance.

To believe that man has no ability to choose between good and evil, places the responsibility of man’s sin on whom?

Chris Roberts


Brief response: compare John 1:9 to John 3:19-21 to see if that light is a light which elevates people to a condition that enables them to receive Christ. The light shines, and natural man hates it. Those in the light are revealed to do works carried out in God.

John 12:32 is harder to respond to briefly, but there are plenty of Calvinist responses out there. Wrestled with it a bit myself when blogging through issues of Calvinism before declaring myself back in the Calvinist camp:

As for John 16:8, I said a few words about that in response to Dr. Lemke.

“To believe that man has no ability to choose between good and evil, places the responsibility of man’s sin on whom?”

On the one who does the sin.

Debbie Kaufman

Let me turn the question around Dr. Lemke. Do you believe all human beings have enough good in them to choose Christ? And if Christ died for every single human being whether they come to him or not does that make Christ a failure?

The view you give is not historically anything but Calvinism. Not high Calvinism, not extreme Calvinism, but Calvinism. I have not read Norman Geislers book, but I would have to see the entire chapter or quote to respond to him, but for sake of argument, if he wrote this and you quoted it in it’s entirety, I would disagree with him based on historic fact. But I would also say that it’s the Bible that dictates what Calvinists believe. Just as it does you and your beliefs. There are plenty of scripture that call men dead before their coming to Christ and God giving them the ability. I’m sure you have heard the scripture given to support this. God does not fail. God is not a failure. He calls all to do what they cannot do so they will see their need for a Savior. For God to intervene.

How many times have you personally prayed for God to change someone’s heart. That is what total depravity is. And yes I am a Southern Baptist who firmly believes in the Doctrine of Total Depravity.

Tim Rogers


There are plenty of scripture that call men dead before their coming to Christ and God giving them the ability.

What scriptures are you referencing and what is the definition of “dead” in those scriptures?


    Ron Hale


    Tim …beat me by a couple minutes in asking one thing …

    I’d like to ask you something else; you wrote:

    “There are plenty of scripture that call men dead before their coming to Christ and God giving them the ability. I’m sure you have heard the scripture given to support this. God does not fail. God is not a failure. He calls all to do what they cannot do so they will see their need for a Savior.”

    You say … “and God giving them the ability.”

    Are you referring to “regeneration prior to faith” or are you referring to conviction and drawing prior to faith?

    Dr. Patterson, in his chapter on Total Depravity in the book Whosoever Will (p.35) shares, “Some Calvinists (not all) take the term (total depravity) to mean that in order for a depraved human being to respond to God’s redemptive act in Christ, that person must first be regenerated. In other words, God regenerates an individual, thus enabling him to exercise repentance and faith. Except for citing John 6:44, the argument garners little other biblical support but follows the logical demands of the Calvinistic system.”

    Where are you on regeneration prior?


Steve Lemke

Regarding the unaided natural man responding to God (i.e., Pelagianism), please reread my response (2) to Chris above.

Bill MacKinnon

Is it right to pray for the salvation of others? If so, what exactly are we asking God to do? Is it a prayer that God honors, or is it even a prayer that He can honor (and answer)? Are people who are being prayed for any more likely to become Christians than others who are not being prayed for?

This, to me, is the heart of the difference between Calvinism and non-Calvinism. We can (and I have) argue the 5 points, all the scriptures, etc. Bottom line: Is God trying to save as many as He can, and failing most of the time? I know non-Calvinists will say that is an unfair characterization, but I don’t know how to put it any other way.

I don’t believe the scriptures paint a picture of a God who tries, but rather a God who does.

Debbie Kaufman

“And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins”
– Ephesians 2:1

“Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;)”
– Ephesians 2:5

“And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses”
– Colossians 2:13

These passages among others refer to our spiritual inability to respond to the Gospel apart from God’s intervention. As Bill said, we don’t have a God who tries, but a God who does.

Debbie Kaufman

I just saw the other question. I believe in regeneration prior to salvation. The two are so closely intertwined that one outwardly see it as one event, I see it scripturally as two.

“For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” 1 Thessalonians 1:4 and 5.

The mode God chose was to hear the Bible, hear the Gospel. (Romans 10:17)

I believe it is through the hearing of the Gospel combined with the Holy Spirit’s working that brings a person to salvation.

    Ron Hale

    Accepting “inability” and “regeneration prior to faith” forces someone to accept at least the “U” and the “I” in the TULIP, does it not?


Geisler is probably not the best representative for this topic. I say that with the following critiques in mind taken from Four Views on Eternal Security, Zondervan, 2002.
– Michael Horton (Classical Calvinist) claims that Geisler puts forth a semi-pelagian view in the book and is not a Calvinist at all.
– Stephen Ashby (Reformed Arminian) writes that Geisler does not represent Calvinism and would call him a one-point Calvinist and suggests he change the name of his position from that of “Moderate Calvinism.”
– J. Steven Harper (Wesleyan Arminian) responds that Geisler redefines irresistible grace in a way that defines it away and uses terminology not normally used in Reformed theology.

Also, this sounds like irresistibilty when saying, “if endowed each of us with the moral ability to hear the gospel and freely respond in faith, or reject the love and grace of God.” That is, if man in his natural, rebellious sinful state prior to any affect of God’s grace is freed in some way that he did not ask for by God’s grace, then it may be said that prevenient grace is irresistible.


The use of “moderate Calvinist” versus “extreme Calvinist” on this site by those who “disagree with” (to be kind) Particular Baptist theology reminds me of what goes on in Hollywood, the mainstream media, secular universities and politics. There, the liberal and Democratic leaning types label Arnold Schwarzennegar, Colin Powell, Olympia Snowe, Rudy Giuliani etc. (you know, nominal GOPers and RINOs) as “moderate Republicans” while everyone else – people who make up the vast majority of GOP voters, elected officials, generally believe in and advance their principles – are called “ultraconservative”, “hard right”, “far right”, “hyper-partisan”, “extremist” etc. Granted, conservatives do the same thing in calling Democrats to whom they are ideologically closer “moderate Democrats” while labeling everyone else “ultraliberal”, “radical”, “socialist” etc.

So, people who actually believe in Calvinist, Reformed or Particular Baptist doctrine for the most part, including the 4 pointers who reject particular atonement, get called “extreme Calvinists.” The issue is not so much that “moderate Calvinists” reject particular atonement, total depravity, and one or more of irresistible grace and unconditional election while still choosing to align with the Calvinists for their own purposes. Instead, the issue is why those who are well within the historical and theological mainstream of this Biblical system get called “extremists.”

The presence of theological disagreement does not justify this stance. It would be akin to a Methodist referring to Baptists as extremists over eternal security, an Anglican employing the term “credo-baptist extremist.” A better example: a Pentecostal referring to the SBC as a bunch of “cessationism extremists” over not only rejecting their stances that the offices of prophets and apostles still exist and the use of their glossolia in public worship, but even (according to their view) rejecting private prayer language.

Now we all know that Southern Baptists are not “cessationism extremists” in terms of theology and history, but instead the term should be applied to those who adhere to such doctrines as the great commission being given only to the apostles and was fulfilled in their time, and groups who reject baptism (of any sort) like the Salvation Army because of their belief that the ordinance was for the apostolic church only.

So, rather than emulating the secular world by using this difference in belief to label those who diverge too far from your own to be “extremists” by definition based solely on where they stand with respect to your own beliefs (which makes you the arbiter and the standard, as opposed to one that is more objective) instead adhere to truth and honesty by labeling someone as an “extreme Calvinist” only if they actually deserve the designation. It is true that most Southern Baptists are not Calvinist, but it is equally true that virtually no Calvinist Southern Baptists, including the 5 pointers, are extreme Calvinists. Why would an extreme Calvinist join a denomination whose primary focus is missions and evangelism? I have seen not a few actualextreme Calvinist websites that mock and deride the SBC’s evangelism and missions work as false and heretical, claiming that the SBC is dishonoring God and creating syncretists and other types of false converts right and left. Lumping the SBC Particular Baptists and other Calvinists in with those sorts, so-called Calvinists who adhere to unbiblical doctrines, by labeling them as “extreme” is factually inaccurate, and moreover a smear.

Steve Lemke

Please see my comment above about the extremism of the “Extreme Calvinist” label. Do keep in mind that the terminology is Geisler’s, and I don’t believe Geisler is a Southern Baptist.


    “Do keep in mind that the terminology is Geisler’s, and I don’t believe Geisler is a Southern Baptist.”

    So, why make an entire post incorporating Geisler’s terminology, and utilizing a chart from Geisler’s book only to distance yourself from what it says? If you didn’t agree with it or feel that it is accurate, why did you use it?

    Also, “extreme Calvinist” versus “hyper-Calvinist” versus ““Strong” Calvinism or “High” Calvinism evades the issue that I was trying to raise anyway. Why would an actual “extreme Calvinist” or an actual “hyper-Calvinist” join a convention whose primary purpose and focus is evangelism, missions and church planting like the SBC?

      Ron Hale


      I am the writer of the article, and I think that I have all the freedom to write as I see things from my vantage point and use quotes from the writers that I have personally read and feel they have something to add to the discussion.

      Maybe you don’t like the article and maybe you don’t like the way Dr. Geisler uses his terms. That is fine … I can live with that.

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